Boston City Hall, often damned for its award-winning but decidedly Brutalist architecture, is nonetheless home to Boston’s fundamental humanity. Mayor Marty Walsh is a man of the people, and the people who work there, who serve the public, who represent government to the citizenry, are the glue that holds together all the disparate and diverse characters and functions that make up what we locals like to call the Hub of the Universe. That’s the core of City Hall, a recent PBS presentation by one of the most accomplished documentarians of the last half century.
Frederick Wiseman, 90, producer of more than 40 documentaries, has devoted his career to revealing the daily lives of institutions. Intrigued by 2017 coverage of the rising importance of mayors in a Trump era, he turned his attention to how a city works. Only one of the mayors Wiseman approached, Marty Walsh, was self-confident enough to risk providing access to the probing camera, for ten weeks of filming in 2018 and 2019. When I first heard about the project, I thought, what? is he crazy?
If so, his decision was inspired. It reflects the man’s commitment to the job he was elected to do and his ability to relate to people inside and outside City Hall, the servers and the served, the problem solvers and the problems. WGBH chief Jon Abbott deserves credit for airing the 4 1/2-hour film (yes, that’s 4 1/2 hours), which has no narrator, no voice-over, no script, only the gradual revelation of a mayor able to interact empathetically with virtually anyone and the hard-working City Hall staffers who share his commitment to access, diversity, inclusion, and solving problems of inadequate housing, uneven education, spotty transportation, police/community tensions, economic inequality.
With Wiseman’s demystification of Boston’s local governance, we meet staffers and citizens coming together in hearings, community meetings, non-profit events and more. Most of us experience federal government through taxes, laws and regulations, mostly indirectly, and spending programs like Social Security. Similarly, we experience state government through taxes and occasional interactions with agencies like the Registry of Motor Vehicles. By contrast, local government touches nearly every aspect of our lives each and every day.
From public safety and schools, down to parking tickets, trash pickup and snow removal, potholes, park maintenance, and zoning issues, Wiseman demonstrates that City Hall represents the contract between government and the citizenry. We get to follow a housing inspector scrutinizing new construction. We meet an Inspectional Services representative documenting housing code violations dogging a frustrated tenant facing infestation by rats. We observe officials in the parking ticket office exhibiting understanding while enforcing the law and a civil servant officiating at a gay marriage, all people who care about their professional roles and the community they serve.
Even as Wiseman is painting the myriad pictures of City Hall, Marty Walsh is telling his own story, which forges profound connections with the people of the city. His sentences and vocabulary are simple, often mundane. Despite always being clad in suit and tie, he lacks a certain polish. But no matter whom he is speaking with (and he is indefatigable in his formal and informal meetings), his dedication and authenticity come through.
No matter what the problem at hand, there’s an element of his personal narrative to which a constituent can relate. A first-generation Bostonian, he is the son of immigrants who arrived when the Irish, he says, were “treated like dogs.” A childhood cancer survivor whose life was saved by the health care system but who missed out on schooling because of his struggle with life-and-death issues. A recovering alcoholic, for whom survival is an everyday theme. Reading between the lines of the documentary, one gets the sense of a man who knows where he has come from, empathizes with those in pain but lacking in power to shape their own destiny, and connects their struggles with his own experience of vulnerability. He conveys a deep self-knowledge, a certainty that for every problem out there exists a reasonable solution waiting to be found, even if some residents want him to move faster than immediately feasible.
Marty Walsh is at the helm of the ship, but he couldn’t steer it in the right direction – toward access for everyone, inclusion, economic and social justice, adequate housing, competitive schools, universal health care – without the 18,000 city employees (most of whom deserve utmost respect for their public service) working in collaboration with multiple non-profits, businesses and citizen activists in neighborhood associations.
Michael Lewis’ 2018 book The Fifth Risk tells the story of unheralded workers in federal agencies and departments who keep the engines of government running without regard to political parties or who is in power at the time. Frederick Wiseman’s City Hall documents at the municipal level why the notion of political hackery is simplistic and damaging to the complicated mission of government. One difference between the two is that Michael Lewis portrays the ignorant bully in the White House who has done all he can to undermine the concept of public service. By contrast, Wiseman’s chief executive is one who respects and embodies the mission of City Hall and who is committed to advancing its goals every single day for every single person of this city.
You may have to watch the four hours of City Hall (now streaming) 60 or 90 minutes at a time, but it’s well worth the effort.